Travel to the past to succeed in the future.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a science-fiction comedy in which two slackers use a phone-booth-shaped time machine to round up historical figures for their high school history presentation (Freud, Beethoven, Joan of Arc, Lincoln, Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, Socrates—who Bill & Ted refer to as So-crates; and Napoleon, who escapes to the local “Waterloo” water park). It’s a cheesy blast from the past where Bill & Ted avoid flunking out (and ultimately save the future) by figuring out a way to tell a compelling story.

So how does this relate to your next interview?

Employers have figured out a way to determine who has the skills they’re looking for: by asking candidates to tell a story about their past. It’s a technique called Behavioral-Based Interviewing (BBI) and it’s a method of interviewing that’s become common across a wide range of industries. The benefit to employers is that they learn about your direct experience demonstrating the competencies they most value.

Unsuspecting students fielding questions like “Tell me about a time you faced a significant problem you had to solve” can feel as lost as Bill & Ted if they haven’t prepared to respond to questions with stories. Without preparation, stories often fall flat, are usually disorganized, and either neglect to include enough information or overwhelm the interviewer with far too much detail.

Luckily, the ability to use stories to showcase skills is easy to learn.

Once mastered, effective storytelling is an asset you can use to respond to many types of interview questions. Travel back to a time when you were at your best—use your mind unless you have a phone booth handy—and share a story where you employed your best skills or were particularly effective. Often your stories can showcase multiple competencies at once, so you may be able to use the same story to respond to different questions.

To prepare for an interview, think of stories you could tell from each of your work, school, and co-curricular experiences. Once you know what you could use, think about how you want to present your stories. The most effective (and most excellent) approach we’ve found is called the S.T.A.R. method:

Situation – briefly provide the context for your story

Task – explain the challenge you had to tackle

Action – describe your actions and thought process along the way towards resolution

Result – how did things turn out?

Here’s an example…

Question: Tell me about a leadership challenge you had to resolve.

“When I worked as a camp counselor the summer before my junior year at Puget Sound, I had a particularly homesick group of 10-year-old girls on my hands. There were several conflicts between the girls, and a few had started saying they wanted to go home—not the experience I was hoping they’d have! I realized I was going to have to turn around the mood of my group quickly or the next several weeks would be miserable for all of them. [Situation and Task]

First, I had to figure out what was going on between them. The conflicts were often over little things, like who took whose hairbrush and things like that. Growing up with three sisters I knew what that was like and knew that the anger was rarely about hairbrushes but more often about feeling crowded and rushed. I created a schedule that had the girls taking care of their morning routines in shifts rather than all at once, to cut back on the overcrowding at the sinks and mirrors.

Over the next couple of days after implementing the new schedule I also took a few minutes with each girl to talk about how she was experiencing the camp environment and let her get some of her frustrations and fears off her chest. [Action]

These small changes paid off. The girls felt more comfortable with me after the one on ones and started coming to me directly when they were feeling bad instead of holding it in or lashing out at others. Also, with a less tense morning routine the girls started getting along better. By the end of the summer, some of them begged to stay, which I considered a victory! [Result]”

Providing structure to your story can keep you from getting side-tracked (like Napoleon at the water park!) and ensure that you won’t leave the employer wondering how it all turned out.

Another benefit of a story response is the opportunity to share more about who you are. By pulling your stories from a variety of experiences you can provide the employer with a rich understanding of your skills and background.

Have an interview coming up? Want some practice learning how to tell compelling stories about your experiences? Contact CES and schedule an appointment to learn more. (We’ll do our best to help you succeed most excellently, dude!)

Photo: Union Films
© 2012 Career and Employment Services, University of Puget Sound